The Children of Israel have been drawing steadily closer to their destination, the land of their dreams: the Land of Israel. In the Parsha of Balak, a catastrophe is narrowly averted: A professional hit-man of sorts is hired to curse the People of Israel. In the end his nefarious plan is thwarted and the curses are turned into blessings. In order to fully understand this episode we must appreciate the context - what happened prior to this episode, and more importantly, who the protagonists are.

The forty years of wandering are all but over. Those who have been sentenced to death have perished; the survivors, their children, march on. As they near the Land, the exact route needs to be clarified: As many travelers know, the shortest distance is not always the best route. In Parshat Chukat, Moshe sends messengers to some of the locals seeking permission to pass through their land. Permission is denied:


And Moshe sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: "Thus said your brother Israel: You know all the adversity that has befallen us. How our fathers went down to Egypt, and we have lived in Egypt a long time; and the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and with our fathers. And when we cried to the Lord, He heard our voice, and sent an angel, and has brought us out of Egypt; and, behold, we are in Kadesh, the border city of your domain. Let us pass, I pray you, through your country; we will not pass through the fields, or through the vineyards, nor will we drink of the water of the wells; we will go by the king's high way, we will not turn to the right hand nor to the left, until we have passed your borders". And Edom said to him, "You shall not pass through me, lest I come out against you with the sword." And the People of Israel said to him, "We will go by the high way; and if I and my cattle drink of your water, then I will pay for it; I will do you no injury, only pass through by foot" And he said, "You shall not go through." And Edom came out against him with many people, and with a strong hand. Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border; therefore Israel turned away from him. (Bamidbar 20:14-21)


Edom, of course, is another name for Esav. Moshe feels it necessary to regale the Edomite king with the trials and tribulations of the sons of Yaakov, and to tell them the story of the great miracles by which God saved their tribal cousins. Perhaps still smarting over the stolen blessings, the children of Esav respond that if they even attempt to approach there will be war. The Children of Israel wish to return home, but Edom has no interest in helping them.

The next nation along the proposed route doesn't even wait for Moshe's messengers: they send troops as soon as they hear that the Israelites are near:


And when King Arad the Canaanite, who lived in the Negev, heard tell that Israel came by the way of Atarim; then he fought against Israel, and took some of them prisoners. And Israel vowed a vow to the Lord, and said, "If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities. And the Lord listened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities; and called the name of the place Hormah. (Bamidbar 21:1-3)


From there they continued north:


And the people of Israel set forward, and camped in Ovot. And they journeyed from Ovot, and camped at Iye haAvarim, in the wilderness which is before Moav, toward the sunrise. From there they moved, and camped in the Valley of Zared. From there they moved, and camped on the other side of Arnon, which is in the wilderness that comes out of the borders of the Emorites; for Arnon is the border of Moav, between Moav and the Emorites. (Bamidbar 21:10-13)


Now they find themselves between two tribes, the Moavites and the Emorites. Once again they send messengers who are rebuffed, but this time they are attacked. In defending themselves, Israel captures the enemy's cities. The conquest had begun:


And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Emorites, saying, "Let me pass through your land; we will not turn into the fields, or into the vineyards; we will not drink of the waters of the well; but we will go along by the king's high way, until we are past your borders." And Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his border; but Sihon gathered all his people together, and went out against Israel into the wilderness; and he came to Yahaz, and fought against Israel. And Israel struck him with the edge of the sword, and possessed his land from Arnon to Yabbok, to the sons of Ammon; for the border of the sons of Ammon was strong. And Israel took all these cities; and Israel lived in all the cities of the Emorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages. For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Emorites, who had fought against the former king of Moav, and taken all his land out of his hand, to Arnon. (Bamidbar 21:21-26)


The text indicates some intrigue regarding the land captured, for it contained tracts which had belonged to the neighboring tribe, Moav. All this information-military, territorial, tribal, provides the backdrop for this week's parsha.


And the people of Israel set forward, and camped in the plains of Moav on this side of the Jordan by Jericho. And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Emorites. And Moav was very afraid of the people, because they were many; and Moav was distressed because of the People of Israel. And Moav said to the elders of Midian, "Now shall this company lick up all who are around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field." And Balak the son of Zippor was king of the Moavites at that time. (Bamidbar 22:1-4)



The larger picture has various tribes in the mix: Edom, Canaan, Emori, Moav and Midian. Edom was approached with words of peace; they responded with venom. The Canaanites waged a preemptive strike but were foiled. The Emori were also approached but chose battle. Now Moav feels that they are next. Apparently, they feel battle will be futile, yet they still wish to resist in some way.

Moav, who most likely were waiting for the opportunity to regain their captured lands, find that someone else has beaten them to it. Yet instead of taking pleasure in the defeat of their enemies the Moavites take a different strategy: they reach out to Midian, forming a confederation with their erstwhile conquerors against their new common enemy, the Israelites. Anyone familiar with biblical history can appreciate the irony of this union; these two tribes did not always get along:


"And Moav said to the elders of Midian": But did not these (Moav and Midian) always hate one another, just as is stated, (Bereishit 36:35) "who had smitten Midian in the country of Moav", from which it is evident that Midian had come against Moav in war? But out of fear of Israel they now made peace between themselves. [Rashi Bamidbar 22:4 (see Sanhedrin:105a)]


Midian's motivation to join the fray at this juncture is interesting: Even a cursory glance at a map of the region makes it clear that while Moav may be the next tribe Israel will encounter, the Midianites were at least one tribe removed, and would meet the Israelites only after Moav. Thus, Midian's interest is to head off the Israelites, to bring their advance to a halt before it reaches their own soil. The mode of action they choose to accomplish this goal is intriguing; they attempt to "curse" the people instead of fighting them. This choice of action displays certain insight into the community of Israel. Rashi explains:


And what induced Moav to take counsel of Midian? When they saw that Israel was victorious in a supernatural manner they said, "The leader of these people grew up in Midian; let us ask them what is his chief characteristic." They replied to them; "His power lies only in his mouth (in prayer)"; Whereupon they said, "Then we must come against them with a man whose power lies in his mouth" (Rashi, Bamidbar 22:4)


Moav has done excellent intelligence gathering; they discover that Moshe spent many years in Midian, and had lived with the "priest" of Midian. They perceive the problem as spiritual, and therefore seek a solution in the occult.

However, the issues may run even deeper. Who are the Moavites? The Midianites? Where did they come from? Are these tribes well-established in the lands in question? What is their belief system? Are they simply generic pagans, or do they both come from a more evolved heritage? The other tribes mentioned --the Canaanites and Emorites-- have been living in the region for generations; they are 'locals' who will not tolerate the infiltration of this new tribe. Canaan is as far removed from the Israelites as anyone could be in those days. Canaan was the son of the Cham, a family line cursed for all time:


And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. And he said, "Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers". And he said, "Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his slave." (Bereishit 9:22-26)


Beyond the security and economic concerns, Canaan could not have been overjoyed by the prospect of the descendants of Shem making their way to their land. Who are the Emorite? They are none other than the sons of Canaan:


And Canaan fathered Sidon his firstborn, and Het, And the Yevusite, and the Emorite, and the Girgashite, And the Hivite, and the Arkite, and the Sinite, And the Arvadite, and the Zemarite, and the Hamathite; and afterwards were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad. (Bereishit 10:15-18)


Despite whatever strife there was between these families, they shared a common ancestral heritage and, as a result, a common enemy against whom they were willing to fight. Moreover, the Emori received special mention in the Covenant between God and Avraham, in which Avraham is told that his descendants would be exiled yet one day return:


And he said to Avram, "Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth. And you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come here again; for the iniquity of the Emorites is not yet full. (Bereishit 15:13-16)


The land of Israel does not tolerate wickedness, though God apparently allows some "slack" to sinners, giving them ample opportunity to mend their ways. Only upon extreme neglect does their collective punishment follow; hence, the unfolding of the intertwined histories of the descendants of Shem and the Canaanites/descendants of Cham.

But who are the Moavites and Midianites? Moav was the illicit son of Lot, the product of his incestuous dalliance with his daughter. Lot was Avraham's nephew, the orphaned child whom Avraham took under his wing. Lot was raised under Avraham's roof; he was well-acquainted with the moral and spiritual greatness of Avraham. He and his descendents knew of the promise made by God to Avraham. They knew that the power of the Israelites was not only physical. So why did they turn to Midian? The answer lies in the identity of Midian, a tribe even more closely related to Avraham:


Then again Abraham took a wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, and Yokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah. (Bereishit 25:1,2)


Midian was the son of Avraham! When Avraham was old and he put his affairs in order he gave his children gifts:


And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. But to the sons of the concubines, Abraham gave gifts, and sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country. (Bereishit 25:6,7)


Avraham saw Yitzchak as his only true son - he being the son of his soul-mate Sarah, and he bequeathed to him all he had. To his other sons he gave no land, only "gifts", and sent them away, east of Israel. What were these gifts?


What gifts [did he give them]? - R. Jeremiah b. Abba said: This teaches that he imparted to them [the secrets of] the unhallowed arts (impure names). Sanhedrin 91a (see Rashi Bereishit 25:6)


As the Israelites march back toward the land bequeathed to them by Avraham, Midian appears. They realize that to defeat the Israelites they require spiritual acumen as well. These children of Ketura are aware of their own spiritual powers, but feel inadequate, and create a confederation of the larger Abrahamic family. Armed with their magical powers (verse 7), they undertake a non-conventional strategy to defeat the Israelites, turning to a prominent spiritual figure, Bil'am the son of Beor, an outsider to the conflict from a more distant territory:


He sent messengers therefore to Bil'am, the son of Beor, to Petor, which is by the river of the land of the sons of his people, to summon him. (Bamidbar 22:5)


The geographical reference is obscure: Where is Petor? Which river is this? From the context, the river in question seems well-known. The Ibn Ezra takes this entire reference as indicating Aram Naharaim, the Aramite "city between the rivers" (i.e., in the delta formed by the meeting of the Tigris and Euphrates: Mesopotamia). The Ibn Ezra utilizes another verse to make this identification:


An Ammonite or Moavite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord forever; Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Aram Naharaim, to curse you. (Dvarim 23:4,5)


Here the place of origin of Bil'am is described as Aram Naharaim, which is also Avraham's birthplace. When asking his servant to bring back a wife for his son from his hometown Avraham sends his servant to the same place, Aram Naharaim:


And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live; But you shall go to my country, and to my family, and take a wife for my son Isaac. (Bereishit 24:3,4)


And the servant took ten of his master's camels, and departed; for all the goods of his master were in his hand; and he arose, and went to Aram Naharaim, to the city of Nahor. (Bereishit 24:10)


In fact, this River is actually an important element of Avraham's identity, who is described as having come from "the other side of the river". This defining characteristic has always been understood as more than a geographic quirk; Avraham was known as "haIvri" (Bereishit 14:13)


"...and told Avram the Hebrew (ha'ivri)..." R. Judah said: [ha'Ivri signifies that] the whole world was on one side ('ever) while he was on the other side ('ever)... The Rabbis said: It means that he came from across the river (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 42:8)


The children of Lot and the children of Keturah knew of the spiritual power of the People of Israel. They knew that a conventional attack against them would be futile. They conjectured that the only way to defeat those who bore the blessing of Avraham would be to procure a new "Avraham". They return to the same breeding ground, Avraham's hometown beyond the River, and seek out the legendary Bil'am, known for his spiritual prowess, in the hope that he could undo the blessings and merit accrued by Avraham.

Unfortunately for them -- fortunately for us - Bil'am was merely an "Avraham wannabe" . He was a counterfeit. The careful reader will note numerous literary references to Avraham in Bil'am's soliloquies, as well as narrative parallels between the Torah's discussion of Avraham and the story of Bil'am. These are not accidental: they are part of the image Bil'am carefully cultivated as the "second coming" of Avraham. Bil'am, like Avraham, rises early in the morning and mounts his donkey, though while Avraham prayed for his enemies, Bil'am wishes to curse his. The conclusion is equally fitting: God forces Bil'am to bless the Israelites, leaving him (and us) with some important lessons: If you wish to be like Avraham, bless the people as he would have. Avraham's power is in his essence as a blessing to the Jews and all of humanity, the source of spiritual enlightenment that cannot be twisted or perverted. The truth Avraham sought and found, the direct and continuous relationship with God he established, will always shine through the darkness spread by spiritual pretenders, false messiahs, bankrupt philosophies. This truth and spiritual stature are the legacy of Avraham's sons Yitzchak and Ya'akov and of their descendents, and are available to any of the descendents of Shem, Cham and Yefet who seek it in earnest.